Big Brother and the Breast

June 14, 2016

That is the title of a chapter in a new book by Jennifer Grayson, Unlatched: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy. Grayson is a Los Angeles writer, and her book includes endorsements from film stars Anne Hathaway and Alyssa Milano.

Jennifer is a breastfeeding advocate, and she explores the science, history, and cultural practices surrounding breastfeeding. While breastfeeding is now known to be superior for child development than infant formula, apparently too few moms follow through with it for the recommended period of time. Jennifer is a champion of “Breast is Best.”   

Jennifer contacted me when she was writing her book because she had come across my essaycriticizing the federal government’s $6 billion Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. I found that while WIC administrators are supposed to encourage moms to breastfeed, the program actually incentivizes moms to use formula because WIC provides it to them for free. WIC accounts for half of all infant formula used in the nation. About 90 percent of WIC infants use some formula, and the share of moms on WIC who breastfeed is substantially less than the share of moms not on WIC who breastfeed.

WIC makes no sense. American pediatricians universally recommend breastfeeding, as do government health officials. Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) runs a $6 billion subsidy program that induces mothers to use manufactured baby formula.

Jennifer explores this conundrum in Unlatched. She and I appear to hold different political views, but we come to similar conclusions about the harmful effects of this federal program. WIC administrators across the nation essentially tell millions of new moms, “Breastfeeding is the best for your baby, but here’s a bunch of coupons for free cans of formula.” Jennifer reports that low-income, often immigrant, moms covet formula and perceive it to be valuable because it is expensive on store shelves. Also, the government is handing it out, so they figure that it must be the best thing for their babies.

Jennifer quotes me noting that the perverse aspects of WIC are “akin to how the government tells people to eat healthy, but the eighty-billion-dollar food stamp program subsidizes untold billions in junk food spending.” I hate government hypocrisy.

I also hate the lack of accountability for the harm caused by government programs, as Jennifer found with WIC. No health official in the “most transparent administration in history” would speak to her about her findings: “I contacted the USDA for feedback. No one was available to speak with me.” Ditto with the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services. Ditto for the California agency that runs the WIC program in that state.

Last word to Jennifer: “The government can promote breastfeeding all it wants, but as long as it continues to hand out free formula, mothers will assume that formula is endorsed by the government.”



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